I. Setting the Stage
The changing role of university governing boards and their relationships with institutional leaders and stakeholders can leave today’s higher education observers wondering, “Who’s the boss?” The concept of external volunteers guiding colleges and universities is a uniquely American innovation that dates back to colonial times. These external perspectives are uniquely valuable assets to twenty-first-century presidents in this age of rapid change and public distrust. Having a governing board gives universities access to wisdom from many different disciplines and sectors and provides a pipeline into what the general public is thinking about higher education. Varying governance structures create unique challenges for presidents, but well-established conduits of authority and accountability are vital to creating a healthy leadership team. By defining the board’s role, opening channels for candid communication, and holding all stakeholders accountable for their part in the university’s effectiveness, we can create a shared governance structure that meets the needs of all university constituents—faculty, staff, alumni, lawmakers, and especially students. This article explores best practices for goal-setting at each level of university leadership, robust information flow among these groups, and the building blocks for mutually supportive engagement and collaboration throughout the university. Meeting higher education’s challenges requires that both boards and presidents step up and work together to create a bold new vision for tomorrow’s universities.
From the perspective of a typical student or faculty member, it may seem that a president’s or chancellor’s office is where the buck stops on campus. But, having led eight universities between us, we can attest that every chief executive answers to someone.
Each of those eight universities we mentioned had a slightly different governance structure. Some had institutional boards that reported to a system board. Many boards had members appointed by a governor, while others elected their members.
The concept of external volunteers guiding colleges and universities is a uniquely American innovation that dates to colonial times. And external perspectives are uniquely valuable assets to twenty-first-century presidents in this age of rapid change and public distrust.
Governing boards typically have power to appoint and to fire presidents and chancellors. Thus, these leaders spend their time trying to avoid the infamous trajectory of one notable university president who was hired with enthusiasm then fired with enthusiasm by the board nine years later.
Perhaps that is one reason higher education’s various shared governance models provoke ambivalence on our campuses.
As former Harvard president Derek Bok once said: “To critics among former college and university presidents and board members, (shared governance) is too cumbersome a process, especially in today’s fast-moving world. To disgruntled faculty, shared governance works badly because it is often ignored by administrations that are too powerful, and by board members who are too quick to meddle in academic matters they do not really understand.”
Surveys show that most presidents, however, see the value in governing boards, whose members are living links to the world beyond the ivory tower—the world we are preparing students to enter.
We cannot all be federal judges, or venture capitalists, or hospital administrators. But having a governing board means we have access to wisdom from many different disciplines and sectors. Board members are a great resource for widening the circle of your conversations.
They are also a pipeline into the general public’s thoughts about higher education. These days, those thoughts can be disheartening.
Early in President Gee’s presidential career, a 1985 Gallup survey showed that 91 percent of people in this country thought higher education was very important or fairly important. In a survey last year by New America, only 55 percent of respondents agreed that institutions of higher education were having a positive impact on society, even though higher education is the most important driver in our culture and our economy right now.
America’s public universities have themselves to blame for much of this trust deficit. In time-honored academic tradition, we have endlessly analyzed ourselves but spent little time engaging with the public to see what they want from today’s universities.
Articulating a university’s value must start with an honest, inclusive, carefully executed series of listening sessions with those outside the university, including board members.
Negotiating a Balance
Negotiating the delicate balance between president and board—between management and governance—is a skill that must be learned. Mostly, it is learned through years of trial and error. And no matter how long you have been a president, you always have more to learn.
The composition of a board also matters greatly to a president. Representations from various societal, political, and economic sectors can provide advice, counsel, and insight that can help a university and its leaders reach their full potential and serve the broadest array of constituencies in the best manner possible. Presidents too frequently have no input into board appointments, but when the stars align, the president may offer appropriate input and thereby increase the likelihood of optimal board representation.
President Young developed close relationships with three of the governors with whom he worked. In each case, the governor understood just how important the university was to the state and its future and how committed university leadership was to fulfilling that mission. Because of that shared vision, those governors were always willing to consult closely with the president in the selection of board members. The president never overstepped his bounds by demanding the appointment of any individual, but rather suggested attributes, backgrounds, and experience that he sought on the board. The governor then identified appropriate individuals and made the appointments. In every case the contributions of those board members were outstanding, aiding the university enormously and reflecting well on the governor.
Relationships with key political figures can also aid in myriad ways. A more informed, sympathetic, and aligned ear can help secure badly needed funding. It can help when uninformed or misinformed political attacks are made on a university. It can help stave off unhelpful legislation or misguided oversight, and it can help smooth the passage of useful and supportive legislation.
In working with political leaders, it is always important to realize that each leader also has his or her political needs. Support for the university’s needs is most likely when those leaders’ political needs and the university’s needs are aligned. This sometimes requires a president to think at a deeper level about how to achieve the university’s objectives.
President Young discovered the importance of that alignment while trying to secure additional funding to expand the faculty at his university. Considering state budget constraints at the time, simply increasing direct funding for the university was not politically palatable. But working closely with community and business leaders, he realized that the governor and the legislature were intensely interested in economic development, as most politicians are. This coincided with the university’s interest in expanding its capacity for bringing its research developments into the lives of people through technology transfer and commercialization. University officials did not think that this was likely to increase dramatically the funds available to the university (it rarely does), but they were convinced that this was an important way for the university to fulfill one of its missions and contribute to the betterment of the world.
After much consultation with business and community leaders, a possible alignment emerged between the political need to expand the economy and the university’s interest in expanding it faculty and its commercialization activities. Hence was born an initiative through which the legislature greatly expanded the funding available for faculty appointments and even research facilities, if the university made appointments and built facilities that would facilitate commercialization and tech transfer of university-developed research and technology.
In the process, the university learned to speak “political imperatives” language and to describe its needs and wishes in terms that resonated with the needs and priorities of the legislature. The university also promised accountability for the use of the funds. But since it was a direction in which the university desired to go in the first place, the alignment allowed the university to do well and do good at the same time. And it allowed the legislature and the governor to satisfy important political goals.
In sum, in working with boards, governors, legislators, and other critical stakeholders, it is important to look for areas where interests align and develop an ability to identity and highlight that alignment. Cooperation, collaboration, and support are much more likely to follow.
Authority and Accountability
Having a shared understanding between presidents and board members is crucial when it comes to questions of authority and accountability.
In a 2013 survey of presidents by the Association of Governing Boards of College and Universities, two top complaints about board members—amusingly—were “lack of engagement” and “micromanaging.”
Imagine how hard it is for board members to know where to draw the line when even we do not seem to know where they should draw the line.
Each member of the shared governance relationship must understand their role. The ideal board member is truly concerned about governance, rather than in adding a high-profile role to his or her résumé. Public university presidents who have gained their state governor’s confidence can sometimes play an active role in recommending talented and engaged people.
The general public is most apt to notice boards when prominent people become board members. If they see people of real merit and heft—rather than just a political agenda—in these roles, it gives an institution more credibility.
In today’s political climate, however, governing boards are becoming yet another battleground in our nation’s culture wars. Since many board members are appointed by political figures, it is perhaps inevitable that some will try to overstep their roles to further political aims.
While this is inappropriate, the older hands-off board model is a likely to remain a vintage artifact. It is said that a long-ago chair of the Harvard board walked into every meeting and immediately proposed a resolution that they fire the president. If the resolution failed, then he ended the board meeting. While that saved time, if nothing else, a more expansive role for boards is our new normal, and chief executives must learn to work in this environment.
Presidents should never waste time pining for the way things used to be, or the way the old board chairman communicated, or did not communicate.
Too much peering in the rearview mirror will only cause a leader to veer off-course. If a current board is keeping a president a bit off-balance, that may be a good thing. A surfeit of comfort can foster complacency. And it does not pay to become complacent about board approval.
That is why a president’s role requires sensitivity to the board’s wishes and inclinations; an even deeper engagement with the board, allowing members to delve more deeply into the university’s operation; greater sensitivity to conflicts among board members; and more willingness to adjust the institution’s sails at the board’s instruction.
Sometimes board members get especially interested in a particular aspect of the university and want to know everything about it and have significant input into how that part of the university operates. This is not bad in and of itself, but it can distract that member and, on occasion, the entire board from engaging in a more balanced and strategic engagement with the operation and activities of the entire university. Satisfying that board member, while keeping the focus on more overarching university governance can be a challenging task. But presidents must be attentive to that risk and work closely with board members to ensure that their focus and attention are consistent with the proper role of the board in university governance.
Dealing with the problem of a board member’s singular focus on a particular part of the university’s operations can be made even more difficult if that board member begins, unbeknown to the president, to consult with a senior university leader other than the president. Generally, a president cannot control a board member’s decision to contact a senior vice-president or dean. Nor do most board members take kindly to a president’s prohibiting other senior leaders from talking to board members. And, frankly, board interaction with leaders other than the president is not always a bad thing. It can sometimes help the board member better perform his or her role. It can also create an avenue for conveying information, challenges, and ideas that are more difficult to convey in other settings. Finally, it can serve as a valuable conduit for senior leaders to express their support for the president’s vision, strategy, and leadership.
However, the president can—and in our experience should—require all university leaders to report to the president any contact they have with board members, even seemingly casual conversations and requests. The president can, and should, also require every senior leader to coordinate with the president any response to a board member or the provision of any information to a particular board member.
Little will undermine a president’s strategy and vision for the university more quickly than board members going around the president and working directly with other senior university leaders. Over time, moreover, direct interaction by board members with university leadership other than president can fatally undermine the board’s confidence in the president. Presidents who cannot secure cooperation from their senior leaders regarding board interaction need to change those leaders!
While we presidents are atop the administrative heap on campus, we are accountable to many—students, alumni, donors, the public. Board members represent the interests of those stakeholders. So when it comes to working with them, no leadership task should go above our heads or be beneath our notice.
And our shared work must include an ongoing conversation about role and responsibilities that help refine the board’s proper level of engagement.
We have found that a president’s engagement with the board can be improved by expanding the flow of information to the board. Most presidents are trying to do the right thing as they understand it. The key is helping the board share that understanding, which requires that members have considerable information, much of the same information that the president relies on.
In Catholic theology, “invincible ignorance” reduces culpability for missteps made without full knowledge of their wrongness. Boards that lack crucial information can likewise be led into error.
Board and presidential alignment become even more important when the board assumes a more engaged role in the direction and management of the university. When the board sees the university the same way the president does, it increases the chances that the board’s and the president’s visions will align.
Information Is Gold
In an academic environment, information is gold, and what board leaders hate most is being surprised, especially with bad news. Often, it is tempting to keep bad news from a board, either because it reflects badly on the institution or the president (and the president thinks he or she can keep it confidential) or because the president wants time to address the problem before (or without) board interference and engagement. That is almost always a bad strategy.
Nothing ever remains secret and keeping bad news from the board reduces trust in the university leadership. We think boards reserve a special ire for occasions when they learn something from a news report or an alumnus that they think they should have heard from the president.
As President Gee likes to say, it is better to “put the skunk on the table.”
A study by Public Agenda found that university board members become frustrated when they hear spin instead of substance from campus leaders.
Or, in the colorful words of one trustee in that survey: “The staff likes to treat you like mushrooms: keep you in the dark and shovel you with manure.”
Candor is a relationship-builder, even when the topics are uncomfortable. Communication is not just for crises, however. Presidents should regularly inform board members about what is happening on campus but also about their thoughts on general higher education trends.
Presidents also need to remember that board members have lives and responsibilities outside of their work on the board. These needs and interests may cause board members to act in ways or take positions that at first seem hard to understand. But sensitivity to board members’ outside lives can pay big dividends. President Young recalls a board member whose behavior on the board seemed invariably confrontational. Questions didn’t seem to be inquiries, but rather challenges. No answer to any concern that board member expressed ever satisfied. In some cases, the answer simply generated another attack. In other cases, the answer was just ignored and the challenge left hanging.
What particularly confused President Young, however, was that the board member was incredibly understanding, supportive, and even generous with praise in private after the meeting concluded. The board member also provided invaluable advice, counsel, and assistance, though always in private. It took some time before the author realized that this board member, the founder and CEO of a globally successful company, had cultivated a reputation as a no-nonsense, very demanding and rarely satisfied CEO. That reputation and persona seemed critical to the board member’s success in business. No matter the public setting, that board member had a reputation to maintain and maintain it the board member did.
Once the board member’s needs were better understood, challenges and seemingly hostile interventions at meetings no longer sent the university’s leadership into a panic and the contributions of that board member were increasingly sought and received, though usually in private.
How we communicate can also be as important as what we communicate.
Institutional governance is complicated and nuanced. If important conversations take place over email—or, God forbid, text message—confusion is sure to result. Context gets lost, tone becomes indistinguishable, and misunderstandings proliferate.
When important issues arise, it is best to talk with board members in person, since that option exists again in our post-pandemic world. Of course, Zoom and even old-fashioned phone calls are still preferable to written communication that the receiving parties might misunderstand.
At public universities, in particular, a great deal of transparency rightly attends decision-making, with emails, texts, and public meetings being accessible to media. Prior to the decision-making stage, however, talking one-on-one with board members promotes candid conversation about the institution’s general direction.
Both presidents Gee and Young find ways to keep in regular touch with board members to discuss issues that do not yet require public discussion.
When controversy arises, board members who are kept in the loop are better equipped to advocate for the university instead of running for cover. At this time when higher education is under fire from many political leaders, a well-informed board and a president can speak with a common voice. Ideally, boards should be defenders of their institution and higher education itself.
When bad news arises, presidents should ensure that the boardroom is an excuse-free zone. In our experience, excuses destroy organizations.
Instead of giving excuses, presidents should seek input. That is why we have board members in the first place.
Too many presidents think their relationship with the board should be largely directed toward managing the board and bringing the board around to their point of view, instead of viewing the relationship as a two-way street. If presidents respect their boards by giving them crucial information, board members can introduce perspectives that are not otherwise readily or easily available to the president.
After all, the presidency is a bit like one classic description of the papacy: You never go hungry and no one ever tells you the truth. Board members, however, are out in the community. Almost by definition, they have connections throughout the state and the alumni base. People talk candidly with them. And the things they hear can be very useful to the president if they pass it along.
Board members also understand various constituencies. They almost certainly understand the politics of their state and the interests of the important alumni that are less likely to be apparent to the president.
To the extent that the board is effectively engaged with the university, its goals, and its challenges, the board can also support and defend the president and the institution to important constituencies, such as the governor, the legislature, alumni, and the media.
All this requires significant engagement with the board, agreement on fundamentals, and mutual respect and support.
Of course, conflicts do arise among board members—an increasingly common scenario in today’s politically charged environment. These conflicts are particularly difficult to navigate and can be deadly to a president. Taking sides in such a conflict is perhaps one’s first instinct and sometimes almost unavoidable. But that is frequently the wrong course. If possible, it is better to stay above the fray and let board leadership work out problems among members. Presidents can acknowledge the conflict and the legitimacy, such as it is, of each side. We must assume that all members of the governance team are acting with goodwill in what they believe to be the university’s best interest.
To maintain a reputation for fairness, transparency, and even-handedness in all board relations is crucial. Most important, presidents should not wade into any conflict between members without letting board leadership know.
Honesty and integrity in dealing with boards is critical. Attempts at manipulation or deceit always backfire.
Building a Firewall
When a president has his or her own conflict with the board, strong relationships with other constituents can be your firewall. Although it is important to keep your board happy, it is more important to meet the needs of your constituents—faculty, staff, alumni, and especially students.
From the campus perspective, a board can seem distant and mysterious. Giving campus stakeholders representation helps; at West Virginia University, for example, a student, two faculty members, and a staff member serve on the Board of Governors that President Gee reports to.
A president’s relationship with the faculty is especially important because they are a university’s fundamental resource. Few, if any, universities are any better than the quality of their faculty. And while presidents might survive conflict with a board, they rarely survive a significant, meaningful no-confidence vote of the faculty.
Faculty members have chosen to cast their lot with the university, despite their ability to get jobs elsewhere at much better pay. They work at the university because they believe it best positions them to make a genuine difference in the world. In short, there is a reservoir of goodwill among faculty that a wise president taps into. Doing so substantially increases the likelihood that the president can move the university forward.
Consulting with faculty on all major university decisions and involving them as much as possible on committees and projects can help to harness that goodwill.
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that those professors most engaged in faculty governance are most likely to have axes to grind against university administration, no matter who leads that administration at any given time. Although we would not suggest that presidents ignore or do battle with these faculty members, presidents should create their own lines of communication with the most prominent, successful faculty, even if they are not actively engaged with the faculty senate or other official structures.
These are the people who make your institution what it is. As a side benefit, if your board becomes unhappy with you, good relationships with these people might save you—at least for a while.
It has been said that each president has three turns to ask for forgiveness. But when you feel you can no longer contribute to your institution’s success, for whatever reason, do not wait for them to “fire you with enthusiasm.”
Of course, the three “asks for forgiveness” rule does not always apply. When President Gee was chancellor of Vanderbilt, he proposed, and did pass with the support of his board chair, term limits for members of the Vanderbilt board. At that time, Vanderbilt had a self-perpetuating board of forty-one members without any term limits. It was very difficult for a chancellor to ask people to give up their board seats.
In a second controversial decision, without gaining consent from the board, President Gee removed the name Confederate from Confederate Memorial Hall—a residence hall that had been built with donations from the Daughters of the Confederacy. Although popular on campus, this change was met with significant angst among a number of board members and, certainly, the Daughters of the Confederacy themselves. In fact, a lawsuit ensued, in which the university prevailed at the lower level. President Gee decided to just note on all future maps the name Memorial Hall and then put a plaque in front of the building explaining the context.
Finally, as his third act requiring forgiveness, he did away with the Athletic Department and put athletics under Student Life. To do this at a Southeastern Conference school struck some as akin to being un-American. But, again with the support of his board chair, the process was completed, and it did work. Of course, President Gee left shortly thereafter to return to Ohio State.
Dr. Young believes that you should never take a job you cannot quit. Know what your limits are and what your fundamental points of integrity are. When the job becomes untenable for any number of reasons—the board will not let you do the job; you cannot do what you believe must be done; you are asked to do things that violate your own sense of integrity—you should dust off your résumé and take the initiative to leave. It is the best thing you can do for your institution and for yourself.
President Gee has found that after memories have faded, institutions may even hire you back.
Beyond faculty, presidents should also cultivate good relationships with vice-presidents, deans, and other senior leaders. In our experience, these leaders are key to the institution’s success. If they do not understand or agree with the president’s vision, it is difficult to achieve one’s goals. Moreover, these are the people charged with turning lofty-sounding strategic plans into concrete action steps. A close relationship between the president and senior leaders enables them to agree not only on goals, but on the precise measurements of success. That is critical to accountability.
Likewise, the president has an obligation to support and sustain the senior leaders. They cannot achieve the president’s vision if they don’t have the resources to accomplish their tasks. At the end of the day, prioritizing the distribution of resources is one of the president’s most important jobs, and, if not done correctly, little else matters. Reliance on intermediaries interacting with senior leaders increases the chance of misalignment between goals and resources.
As university leader, of course, the president must liberally distribute credit among his or her team and, at the same time, personally take all responsibility for any failure. We have been stunned to see many chief executives throw their subordinates under the bus at the first sign of trouble. Such a cowardly action almost always comes back to haunt the president.
Senior leaders are much less willing to stick their necks out, trying innovative, imaginative things, if they expect to lose their heads at the first sign of failure. A president must welcome certain kinds of failure—well-intentioned, goal-oriented, and fully disclosed failure—and take responsibility for it. This does not mean tolerating incompetence or dishonesty, of course. But it does mean that if senior leaders are trying to accomplish the president’s vision (and the president is adequately informed, preferably before, but at least after the fact), the president should support them. Too many such failures suggests incompetence and should be dealt with, but failure itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But a culture of useful failure only becomes possible if senior leaders feel they have the president’s support.
The president sometimes has the responsibility to support and defend senior leaders both inside and outside the university. Sometimes the board will be particularly critical of a certain senior leader. The president needs to defend that leader to the board and, again, take responsibility. This is not a license for senior leaders to do whatever they want. When they have taken truly unacceptable steps, the president must reject those steps—and that leader. But, again, if the leader is largely aligned with the president and trying to fulfill his or her vision, the president should defend that leader against attacks by board members.
Students are, of course, another key constituency at any university. Presidents should engage with student leaders in those areas that concern students. Of course, students sometimes have a rather expansive view of which matters fall within their purview. Having that view is not necessarily wrong, but it does create an opportunity for the president to educate student leaders on the bigger picture of university administration.
The president should use any interaction with students as an opportunity to gain insight into their concerns. At the same time, he or she should never lose sight of the fact that any student leadership group represents only a relatively small percentage of the student body and probably has an even more limited understanding of the views of the student body. Who could fully understand the views of 30,000 or even 75,000 students, after all?
Even more importantly, the president has an understanding of the institution, the educational mission and education itself that far exceeds that of students. Student demands may not be reasonable if they are inconsistent with creating an optimal educational environment or providing the best education possible. Or demands may be entirely reasonable, but not feasible due to resource constraints. Presidential interaction with student leaders should reflect the president’s leadership role, of course. But it should also encompass the president’s role as a teacher and mentor. The president can use this interaction to help the students become better, more accomplished, more effective leaders.
In our experience, many student leaders go on to significant leadership roles in business, politics, society, the military, and education. They obviously have a desire and instinct for leadership. What better way to prepare them to be successful in those roles than to take them seriously as student leaders, which sometimes requires agreement and support and sometimes requires harder lessons in leadership, lessons that a president is often well positioned to offer?
Other Governance Models
In addition to cultivating these traditional constituencies, some presidents must also report to a system leader, usually holding the title of chancellor. In those circumstances, the president does not generally have a direct relationship with the system board. In some situations, one board oversees all system institutions, which in turn each has its own board. In other cases, one board governs all institutions in the system.
If an institution has its own local board, the relationship between that board and the system board must be well defined. In our experience, the local board tends to be more important to the president than the system board. That was certainly the case for Dr. Young at the University of Utah. And in Washington, when he arrived, the system board that theoretically oversaw all institutions was so powerless that the legislature eventually eliminated it, at the urging of the presidents and local boards. Presidents reporting to local boards will find that all we have said previously about board relations applies to them.
The more difficult challenge involves those cases when the president reports to the chancellor, who, in turn, reports to the system board. In this situation, much of what we have said about working with a board can be directly applied to working with the chancellor.
In some cases, however, the system board may be largely concerned or, more correctly, overwhelmingly concerned, with only one of the institutions it oversees. The president of this university faces special challenges. This distance between the president and the board requires a very special relationship between the president and the chancellor. At Texas A&M, President Young has established such a close and respectful relationship with system Chancellor John Sharp.
Finally, whatever governance structure a president must navigate, we believe that cultivating humility will keep a leader on the right course.
Beware the cult of personality that can form around you and the sense of entitlement that can creep in when your position provides everything from a house to the best seats in the football stadium.
Presidents are all dispensable, and our board members know that better than anyone.
The phrase “shared governance” may never excite a president as much as ones like “unrestricted donation” or “national championship.”
But communication, accountability and shared purpose will make presidential and board relationships more effective and make the university stronger.